Rising State Flagships

November 10, 2006 at 2:41 pm Leave a comment

November 10, 2006

Beyond Berkeley

It’s no longer a birthright. As college-admissions mania snowballs, many state universities are getting increasingly selective. Nancy Keates on the new plight of the average student.

November 10, 2006; Page W1

Where’s a B-student to turn?

In recent years, as the college-admissions process has reached a frenzy, much of the focus has been on the plight of type-A families and their A-earning progeny getting rejected by the top 100 or so schools in the country. This competitiveness started with the Ivies and then spread to what such students had long considered safety schools, like Tufts or Pomona. Yet with the exception of a few elite public universities (Berkeley, Michigan, Virginia), the country’s big state schools pretty much welcomed decent students with open arms and few questions.

Try telling that to Kim Keller — grade point average of 3.5, combined math and reading SAT scores of 1210 — who was rejected last year by her top choice, the University of Georgia. “I was pretty sure I’d get in,” says Ms. Keller, who is now a freshman at Georgia State University. “Things have really changed.”

Attending the local public university is no longer a birthright. An explosion in applications has allowed the schools to reject students in record numbers. The University of Delaware (home of the Fightin’ Blue Hens) accepted fewer than half of its applicants last year, down from the two-thirds it let in a decade earlier, even as the number of students it admits has risen. Before last year, the University of Arizona was required to take every in-state student in the top 50% of his or her class. Now the university is required only to admit students in the top 25%.

At the University of South Carolina’s Columbia campus, average combined SAT scores of incoming students were 61 points higher last year than five years earlier. Its acceptance rate fell to 63% from 76% in 1995, while the number of students admitted increased by nearly 2,000. Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, had 27,560 applications last year at its New Brunswick/Piscataway campus — up 40% over the past decade. Though it let in 20% more students, its acceptance rate dropped to 58%, from 67% a decade earlier.

“The quality of the students we admitted in the 1990s was the same level as the quality we rejected last year,” says Nancy McDuff, who heads admissions at the University of Georgia, where the average GPA for students enrolled this fall climbed to 3.8 from 3.4 a decade earlier.

In addition to tightening their entrance requirements by requiring higher GPAs and test scores, for the first time some state universities, including the University of Arizona, are requiring applicants to submit personal essays and list their extracurricular activities and accomplishments. Last year, the University of Washington moved to a more comprehensive approach, in which the admissions staff reads the entire application and looks at grades within the context of the individual high school, rather than relying on computerized cutoffs.

What’s happening is a snowball effect, where students who get rejected from state flagship universities in turn squeeze out applicants at schools on the next level.

Acceptances at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill fell to 34% from 38% five years ago. In nearby Raleigh, incoming students at North Carolina State University had an average weighted high school GPA of 4.1 last year, up from 3.6 a decade ago. At the University of Florida, freshmen this year had an average GPA of 3.99, compared with 3.45 a decade ago. The school attracted 230 merit scholars last year — more than any Ivy League school except Harvard and Yale. That’s pushed up applications at Florida State University, where the acceptance rate fell to 44% from 54% five years ago.

This issue hits close to many homes: 63% of students enrolled in four-year universities go to public schools.

Universities have become more selective in part because there are more students seeking spots. The number of high-school graduates nationwide hit an estimated three million in 2004-05, up from 2.5 million 10 years earlier, according to the Education Department. Enrollment in degree-granting institutions rose 21% between 1994 and 2004, to 17.3 million. By 2014, the number is expected to hit 19.5 million. The ease of filling out forms online has contributed to a surge in applications.

Cost Issues

The high price of tuition is another big factor. As the total cost of attending a private college hits some $40,000 a year, more parents are looking for a public alternative, meaning more competitive students are applying to state schools. State schools have increased merit-based financial-aid awards, something many highly selective private universities like Harvard and Stanford don’t offer.

Though tuition at public four-year universities has risen 35% over the past five years, adjusted for inflation, they’re still far cheaper than private schools. In-state tuition at public schools averaged an annual $5,836 this year, while out-of-state tuition averaged $15,783, according to the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. The average cost of tuition at private college this year was $30,367, according to the College Board.

When Paul Schaffert started thinking about colleges, he didn’t initially consider Arizona State University. “I wanted to go to some famous institution,” says the 18-year-old. But when Mr. Schaffert started touring such places last year, he noticed the buildings weren’t in any better condition, the food was pretty much the same and students had no better access to professors and small introductory classes.

In the end, offered financial aid at Arizona and unable to find any justification for paying several times more for the other schools that accepted him, he chose the state school over Yale, Johns Hopkins, Swarthmore and the California Institute of Technology.

To raise their profiles, and draw in higher fees from out-of-state students, a widening array of public universities are recruiting top applicants, using tactics similar to those used by private schools. Binghamton University, part of the state university system of New York, which has rarely recruited west of Pennsylvania, just hired three “travelers” to visit high schools in Chicago, California and Denver.

Other schools are raising funds to attract faculty and expand honors programs. Arizona State’s Barrett Honors College gives students their own, small freshman seminars and priority for getting into classes. Honors students will soon have their own campus, at a cost of $80 million, with four quadrangles, a dining center and classrooms.

When Sara Beth Winters was trying to decide between the University of Delaware and Tufts University, the public school’s recent fund-raising efforts made the difference. She extensively visited both campuses, meeting with the heads of the respective eastern Asia studies programs. Delaware’s recent infusion of $400 million in donor funds, raised during the past five years, has helped the school build classrooms and hire more faculty, and left Ms. Winters impressed. “Overall, the opportunities were surprisingly much better,” says Ms. Winters, who had a weighted high-school GPA of 4.5, and SAT scores of 750 math, 700 writing and 690 verbal.

Some of the traditional stigma against state schools is starting to recede, even in the Northeast. Janet Raiffa, head of campus recruiting for the Americas for Goldman Sachs, says penetrating more state schools is one of her biggest challenges. “There are top students who turn down Ivy League schools for state schools because they get a great educational bargain,” she says. The investment firm gets most of its candidates from places like the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard and New York University, but it’s “trying to do better” in finding students at alternate campuses, says Ms. Raiffa. Some of the current target schools: the University of North Carolina, the University of Virginia, the University of Texas, Binghamton, SUNY Albany and the University of Michigan.

One key to getting into a state school in this newly competitive era, advisers say, is choosing a school that has increased its freshman class size, like Arizona State, U.C. Davis or the University of Washington. Another strategy: finding schools that have raised the percentage of out-of-state students, including Binghamton, the University of Oklahoma and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where the percentage of nonresident applicants admitted increased to 20% in 2006 from 18% five years earlier. The school recently started flying in accepted applicants from other states for campus visits and sending admissions staff to new areas, including Minnesota, Montana, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada.

College advisers suggest that students with inconsistent records apply early. Many state universities have rolling admissions, and review and decide on applications as they are received until there are no openings left. The sooner an application is in, the better the chance.

Taxpayer-subsidized state schools — formed after the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890, which gave states land to create educational institutions — have a mandate to be useful to the state. (They originally provided research and new ideas for agriculture and “mechanical arts.”) Because they have been historically easier to get into than private universities, they’ve been viewed as less prestigious.

Serving the Public

Some analysts worry that the new, stricter criteria ignore needier students. Thomas Mortenson, a senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, in Washington, D.C., says state schools are favoring wealthier students, who tend to get higher test scores and grades, over the lower-income students they used to serve. “They’re trying to maximize profit and prestige,” he says. About $12.7 billion in Pell Grants (aid for students from low or lower-middle income families) were awarded for the 2005-06 academic year, down 3% from $13.1 billion the previous year. The average grant per recipient slipped to $2,354 from $2,474.

To avoid being labeled elitist and keep enrollment accessible, some schools cap the percentage of out-of-state students they accept, either by choice or by state regulation. And states are adding campuses. Last year, the University of California added a branch in Merced, while the University of Washington’s schools in Bothell and Tacoma accepted freshmen for the first time this fall.

That’s of little comfort to a hopeful student. Despite a GPA of 3.6 and combined math and reading SAT scores of around 1090, Molly Zwelling was rejected last year by Ohio State University. (The school says the 2006 incoming class averaged 1200 on the SATs.) “I was really crushed,” says the 18-year-old from Columbus, who enrolled this year at the public University of Cincinnati. “I was bawling.”

Write to Nancy Keates at nancy.keates@wsj.com








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